The number of journalists who refer to the French/Israeli/Dutch composer-singer-songwriter-sound designer-engineer-producer Keren Ann as “mesmerizing” or “extraordinary” is almost laughable, and I agree. Her deeply personal music is hard to neatly lump into a basket filled with her oft-less worldly female contemporaries, as she transcends the musical typecasting and organically pushes the boundaries of context, while expertly avoiding caricature. Perhaps the British magazine Q said it best, “Few can manage this level of confidence and mystique.” I caught up with Keren on her few days off between two shows in Germany and the start of a three week U.S. tour in an attempt to add to the mysterious canon of Keren Ann.
A friend from Paris told me to check out your eponymous album during a heat wave in NYC in 2007, and I vividly remember listening to the first 10 seconds of “It’s All A Lie” – the hammer-on vibrato guitar, the amp crackle, and your effortlessly, sultry opening words – and being totally drawn in…and that was before I learned that you also produce your albums. How did you pick the sequence of songs for your new album 101?
Keren: It felt pretty natural. I needed to build a sequence that makes sence in terms of the sound evolution but also the stories told. I always knew that the title track will close the album, I just needed to set the right sound order for the rest. I also knew that “All The Beautiful Girls” would come third and “My Name Is Trouble” first. That was a given.
101 strikes me as a musical leap from your 2007 eponymous album – especially the beats, drum sounds, and key sounds, while still maintaining your breezy and beautiful vocal delivery. What is really striking though is the image and content leap: from lovelorn contemplation of lies to holding a gun on your album cover and talking about being a “Sugar Mama”. How conscious of this shift were you during the creative process?
The more I make music, the more I become obsessed with sound and frequencies and production. I know that songwriting is a big part of my life and I don’t see how I can do without it. However, the art of sound and the entire process of giving an emotion, a note, an instrument, a room, or an atmosphere an actual physical form is all I care about when I’m in the studio. I want the music to give the exact feel that is already in the words and the melody but I need to be able to paint a whole mew musical landscape with each song. I say so many things about myself in the songs that I can’t step back when it comes to their form. I need a song to be fully representative of what I have to say at that moment and I need an entire album to be a true chapter of my life.
One of the things that I love about your music is that every so often a lyric makes me squirm a little. Lyrics like “There was blood on my fans/There was blood in my whiskey/Now there’s blood on my hands” almost have a Pixie-ish violent feel given the context of your lush melodies. Where does that come from?
I love beauty and poetry but I think my observation is always trapped between the actual instinctive feel and what it can become. How to turn around a perfect situation or how to balance out an odd feeling of longing. This empathetic point of you helps me write things that are sometimes hard to say. Blood on my hands is more like “what would Tarantino do in my place”?
The title track on your new album, 101, references The Old Testament and Israel independence – do you think of yourself as a Jewish artist? Or an Israeli artist?
My identity doesn’t necessarily exist through religion but I do carry my origins with me. When you are born in Israel you do not have the luxury of being an eternal pacifist because reality hits you from a very young age. I think that being, even partly, Israeli is a strong responsibility though I am rarely an activist in my songs. I do have statements but they are open to subjectivity. My countdown has to do with the last hours before my fathers death and he is all over that song. He was Israeli.
Do you actually have 48 pairs of shoes [as referenced in the track “101”]? Which are your favorites?
I do. I have a pair of classic red high heels that I rarely wear cause I can’t bare over an hour with them but I love having them.
Have you been following Obama and Netanyahu’s speeches on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?
I have and in order to speak about that we will probably need a lifetime.
Well – do you think peace is possible in our lifetime?
I think peace is possible in certain parts of the world, but unfortunately I am very pessimistic about peace in the Middle East. We would need long hours of discussion to make this response more valuable.
Your U.S. tour starts today. What do you do to fill the time while traveling between cities?
I write. I watch TV on my laptop. I have a pile of fun books to read. I try to blend in with the long highways and not make plans.
Full Keren Ann tour dates are here. Catch her in NYC at Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday, June 8th, and in LA at Luckman Fine Arts Complex on Saturday, June 25th. 101 is now available on iTunes and Amazon, and in record stores that know what’s up.